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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Aunt Beckey “Kunjured”

By Katharine Sherwood Bonner McDowell (1849–1883)

[Born in Holly Springs, Miss., 1849. Died there, 1883. Suwanee River Tales. By Sherwood Bonner. 1884.]

WHILE we were at breakfast, Aunt Beckey’s niece, Leah, came running in. Leah was a queer little darky, with her hair tied in countless pigtails pointing in every direction, and her eyes continually rolling about like beads in a socket.

“Mars’ Charles,” said she, “Aunt Beckey done sont me fur you. She want ter see you quick. She’s powerful low dis mornin’.”

“What’s the matter?”

“She do say she’s been tricked”—in a loud whisper.

“Nonsense!” cried my father, tossing a biscuit at the small messenger. “Tell her I’ll be with her in five minutes.”

I went with father to Aunt Beckey’s cabin. What a change in one night! Her face looked drawn and pinched; her eyes were startled and full of fear.

“Oh, Mars’ Charles!” she cried, pitifully, “ole Sini has witched me sho’ an’ sartin’, an’ I’m full of little snakes!”

“Why, Aunt Beckey, what on earth do you mean?”

“Jes’ what I say, Mars’ Charles; an’ it’s God’s trufe I’m speakin’. When I saw ole Sini at de camp meetin’ I mistrusted dat she meant ter work me a mischief; an’ I kep’ away from her jes’ as much as I could; fur, as sho’ly as de devil lives an’ trimbles befo’ de face o’ de Lord, dat ole witch ’ooman hes got de Evil Eye. But I couldn’t keep my thoughts off’n her; an’ I wus a-wishin’ her evil in my heart all de time.”

“Well, Beckey, that was natural enough,” said my father, kindly.

“Mebbe it wus natural,” groaned Aunt Beckey; “but oh! it wus sinful, an’ I am punished fur it, jes’ as little Missy said I would be.”

“Why, what have you to do with this?” said my father, turning to me sternly, to my great alarm.

“I only told her a proverb,” faltered I.

“Curses, like chickens, come home ter roost,” moaned Aunt Beckey,—“come home ter roost! Mebbe if I hadn’t been harborin’ sech wickedness an’ ill-will in my heart, de good Lord would have protected me from her deperadations on me. For I’ll tell you, Mars’ Charles, what happened,”—and Aunt Beckey half raised herself in bed and fixed her great black feverish eyes on my father’s face.

“Las’ night I was a-lyin’ here, wid my eyes wide open an’ all my faculties broad awake, when in come ole Sini, a-slippin’ an’ a-glidin’, like de snake dat she is. I tried ter jump up an’ scream, but she hel’ me ter de bed wid dat witch eye of hern, till I wus jes’ stagnated, an’ couldn’t ’a’ moved an inch. No, not if it had ’a’ been ter have slipped my neck from de hang-man’s noose.

“‘Drink dis,’ she says, bendin’ over me, an hissin’ hot in my ear. An’ she hel’ out a cup of water, witch water, full o’ somethin’ like wrigglin’ hairs. I knowed dey wus snakes, but I had no power ter push dat cup away. I jes’ drunk it down like a baby, an’ from dat minnit I wus lost. Ole Sini laughed, an’ a sort of blue flame busted out all around her, an’ dar was sech a smell of brimstone dat I fainted clean away. When I come to, Sini wus gone, but dem snakes wus wrigglin’ through me in streaks of pain, an’ from dat on, Mars’ Charles, I ain’t had one minnit’s peace.”

“You should have sent for me, Beckey. I might have given you something to relieve that pain at once. You have evidently taken a violent cold; and your trouble is caused by your old foe, rheumatism. As for the rest, my poor soul, you have had a bad dream. Old Sini couldn’t trick you if she wanted to! The good Lord never gave one mortal that power over another.”

“And then, papa,” cried I eagerly, “Sini lives on the Weatherly plantation, thirty miles away. She couldn’t get here!”

“Dey rides through de air,” murmured poor Aunt Beckey. “Dey rides on de souls o’ lost sinners dat wanders up an’ down an’ over de earth.”

“I won’t have that nonsense,” said my father sharply; “where is your common-sense, Beckey?”

“Snakes! snakes!” cried Aunt Beckey frantically; and then to our horror the poor creature went off into convulsions, foaming at the mouth, clinching her hands until the nails drew blood, stiffening and relaxing her form, resisting all attempts at quieting her, until forced to yield to the effects of an opiate.

This was the beginning. “And Heaven knows what the end will be,” said my father, his kind face clouded with anxiety.

During the next two weeks three doctors in turn were called in to see Aunt Beckey. Through their skill, perhaps, the attack of pneumonia or inflammatory rheumatism with which she had seemed threatened was warded off; but she grew no stronger. All sorts of remedies were tried in vain. The doctors declared they could do no more for her, and that there was no reason why she should not, as it were, take up her bed and walk. But poor Aunt Beckey! There she lay, tranquil now, sometimes even smiling, saying little, losing flesh daily, looking out on the vanishing world with big solemn eyes glowing strangely in her gaunt face,—dying as surely as though Aunt Sini’s imagined draught had been in truth the deadly Italian acqua, the introvabile poison whose traces could never be discovered, though one drop sufficed to kill with slow and nameless tortures.

My mother spent hours beside the sufferer, but all her influence was of no avail. Tricked Aunt Beckey was, and tricked she meant to remain, in the teeth of a whole college of physicians or sceptics.

“Don’t you know, Aunt Beckey,” cried my mother one day, “that what you say is impossible?—that snakes cannot live in the human stomach?”

“Dey ain’t in my stomach, honey, not in pertikeler. Dey is everywhar dat feelin’ lives, a-curlin’ an’ a-coilin’ an’ a-strikin’ dar fangs over every part of my po’ tormented body.”

“Like Ariel, ‘flaming amazement’ over all the ship,” murmured I; for I had just begun to read Shakespeare.

“Dey’s in my legs now,” continued Aunt Beckey, mournfully; “an’ I tell you, Mis’ Mary, I’d be willin’ fur my legs ter be cut off, if I could git red of de snakes dat race from my knees ter my feet.”

It was a strange, gloomy time. The place was never so quiet. No more dancing to the banjo’s ting, nor singing on moonlight nights. The negroes moved about silently, and talked in low frightened whispers. Every evening the little cabin was filled with visitors from the adjoining plantations, who mourned and sang over Aunt Beckey, I believe, the entire night through. Some of their songs were fine old Methodist hymns, which were rolled out with grand effect; others must have been improvised for the occasion, as for instance:

  • Satan’s sech a liar,
  • And a kunjurer too;
  • Ef you don’t mind,
  • He’ll kunjur you!
  • Kunjur you
  • He will kunjur you!
  • During the fourth week of Aunt Beckey’s illness, my father was called away from home, to be gone some days. But for his absence, the audacious piece of roguery I am about to chronicle would never have been attempted, and I should have had no story to tell.

    It began with Cousin Henry’s persuading mamma to let him take charge of Aunt Beckey’s case.

    “You know uncle has given her up,” he urged.

    “True,” said my mother with a sigh; “he told me, the night before he left, that, although he believed her disease purely imaginary, yet he had given up all hope of saving her. But what can you do for her, Henry,—a mere boy like you, though you are a saucy medical student?”

    “Fancying myself very wise!” laughed Henry. “Go on, Aunt May; I know you want a rap at my conceit! But I am not going over the old ground with Aunt Beckey. I fancy the wisdom of the schools has been exhausted in her behalf. I’m so liberal in my views that I’ve no objection to a bit of quackery, when I can gain a point by it.”

    “There seems to be only one thing to be said in favor of quacks,” remarked my mother, thoughtfully; “they always cure their patients!”

    “Treason in the home camp!” cried Henry. “What would uncle say to such a speech? But do let me try to help poor old Beckey, aunty dear. If I could save her life, would you object to any means by which that good end came about?”

    “How could I?” cried my mother. “No indeed, Henry, if you can help poor Aunt Beckey, God’s blessing will be on your effort; and my prayers will go with you every step of the way.”

    Henry had the grace to blush a little at this, but he skipped off quite cheerfully to Aunt Beckey’s cabin. Of course I went with him. Where Henry led I usually followed in those days! What a torment I was, to be sure!

    “I’m awfully sorry to see you so ill, Aunt Beckey,” he said cordially.

    “Yes, Marster, I’se mighty bad off,” she said feebly. Poor soul! she talked no more of being tricked. She was tired of telling her story to sceptical ears.

    Henry looked at her with perfect gravity. “There has been foul work here,” said he; “this is a case of witchcraft.”

    Aunt Beckey burst into tears. At last she had found some one to believe her. “Oh, Mars’ Henry! how come you so wise? You’s de fust one—de only one—ter know de trufe.”

    “‘None so blind as those who won’t see.’” quoted Henry; “it’s as plain to me as the sunlight; you’ve been tricked.”

    “Not many days of life left for poor old Beckey,” said the interesting victim.

    “I’m not so sure of that,” said Henry cheerfully. “I’ve studied this subject, and I know the ins and outs of it. I’ve read more books about demons than there are hairs on your head; and I’ve seen sights to make your heart jump out of your body. With my own eyes I have seen water blazing like a tar-barrel on fire; and I have seen a dead man rise in his shroud and thrust out his cold arm as if to seize you”——

    “Oh! Mars’ Henry, hush! it skeers me to hear sech things. Maybe you’re a Hoodoo witch yourself.”

    “How can you think such a thing?” shouted Henry. “No! I am the bitterest enemy the Hoodoos have; and I know how to come up with all their tricks.”

    “Maybe you can help me,” said Aunt Beckey timidly.

    “Of course I can. I would have offered to do it long before, but these grand doctors were so sure they could cure you! But mind, Aunt Beckey! if I take you in hand you must obey me in everything. The least slip in following my directions might prove fatal.”

    “Try me! try me!” she cried, eagerly; “oh! Mars’ Henry, you can’t tell me nothin’ tu hard ter do; fur I ain’t ready yit—de good Lord knows I ain’t—ter cross beyond de swellin’ floods.”

    Henry drew a hideous little wooden image from his pocket, and gave it to Aunt Beckey with the injunction that she should wear it over her heart night and day. “It is a very powerful fetich,” said he, “and will protect you from any future harm.”

    Then he turned to gran’mammy, who stood by, with a gleam of hope brightening her face, and told her to kill a white chicken just as the moon rose, and make a strong broth for Aunt Beckey.

    “Put plenty of red pepper and rice in it,” said he, “and feed her exactly one pint every three hours; not a spoonful more or less, or I can’t answer for the consequences. To-morrow I shall call at the same hour, and I will see to the snakes that have caused you so much trouble. I suppose you are willing to suffer some pain in order to get them out of your system?”

    “Yes, Mars’ Henry, God knows I’m willin’ ter suffer anything.” And Aunt Beckey closed her lips with the air of a martyr.

    That afternoon my cousin and my small brother Sam went hunting. On their return, I noticed that Sam carried a small oblong box in his hand; but he would not tell us what it held.

    The next day, at dusk, Cousin Henry led the way to Beckey’s cabin, followed by mother, Ruth, Sam, and myself. Aunt Beckey looked better and brighter. She declared that she felt strength flowing into her from the little wooden idol that she held clasped tightly to her bosom. And it did not occur to the good simple soul that the chicken-soup might be responsible for this new-born strength! The backyard was densely packed with negroes, but not one was allowed to enter. Inside the cabin, the scene was worthy of a painter. The primitive lamp—an iron bowl of lard-oil, with a wick floating on the surface—burned with a black smoke above the flame, and cast strange, flaring, hobgoblin shadows on the whitewashed walls. Henry drew a chalk circle in the middle of the floor, marking inside of it ridiculous designs, which it pleased him to call cabalistic. Then he swung a lighted censer, chanted a Latin hymn, and was withal so grave that even I dared no longer smile, though the pungent odor of the incense set me sneezing.

    Aunt Beckey’s dark figure lay motionless on the bed; but her great hollow eyes followed Henry’s every motion with painful eagerness, until at a signal from the impromptu doctor, my mother stepped forward and tied a cool bandage across the hot lids.

    Gran’mammy bared her daughter’s swollen rheumatic limbs, and Henry rubbed them gently for about half an hour. Then he said: “I find, Aunt Beckey, that the snakes are now all in the right leg. The fetich has troubled them so much that they are trying to get out. The only thing to do is to cut open the foot, and they will drop out of themselves. Are you willing?”

    “Go on,” said Aunt Beckey.

    “Stand back, all of you!” cried Henry. “No one must come near me but Sam. He must hold the basin.”

    I saw a twinkle in the small boy’s eye, and I crept pretty near myself, unrebuked by my absorbed cousin. He pierced the foot with a sharp lancet, and the blood flowed freely. The light was so dim that for all my efforts I could not quite see what was going on. But I noticed that Sam held the oblong box in one hand; and from time to time an exclamation from one of this precious pair—“There is another!” “Don’t let it get away!” “Four, is it?” or some such significant cry—set us all quivering with excitement.

    “That is all,” said Henry at last. “She is saved.”

    He bound up the foot, and took the bandage from Aunt Beckey’s eyes.

    “Fetch another light,” he said quietly.

    Then he held the basin, so that she could examine its contents; and there were at least six wicked-looking little snakes. “Those who have eyes to see, let them see,” said that wretched Henry, without so much as the flicker of an eyelash!

    I can hear Aunt Beckey’s scream of joy to this day! Then how she wept! What blessings she called down on the head of the arch impostor! What shouts of “Glory! Glory!” resounded through the little room! How the darkies outside took up the strain, and all night long praised the Lord in singing and in prayer.

    As for my dear mother, she was so divided between indignation and laughter that she had to hurry away. She was so conscientious that she could not reconcile herself to such a tremendous fraud as that which Henry had practised; and yet, when she saw our dear old Aunt Beckey fast getting well, how could she help being grateful to the clever and mischievous boy who had brought it about?

    My father heard the story with an unmoved face. “Lucky I was not here, you young rascal,” he remarked.

    “Lucky for Aunt Beckey,” said Henry dryly.

    Certainly, Aunt Beckey did get well, and appeared better in mind and body for her strange experience. She has not been tricked since; thanks perhaps to the fetich that she wears like an amulet over her heart; or to the charitable prayers that she is in the habit of offering for Aunt Sini.

    “No mo’ curses shell come home to roost on my head,” she says, with slow, solemn words; “fur I bless, an’ I curse not, an’ I pray fur dem dat ’spitefully uses me; an’ dis I shall do forevermo’, as long as I live on de earth, an’ my name is Beckey Bonner.”